Marx and Engels and the ‘Collapse’ of Capitalism
In 1786, three years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, Gracchus Babeuf wrote:
“The majority is always on the side of routine and immobility, so much is it unenlightened, encrusted, apathetic . . . Those who do not want to move forward are the enemies of those who do, and unhappily it is the mass which persists stubbornly in never budging at all.”
The events of 1789 disproved his gloomy predictions but, by the time Babeuf became prominent, the reaction was already setting in. His slogan of “The revolution is not finished, because the rich absorb ail wealth and rule exclusively, while the poor work like veritable slaves, languishing in poverty and counting for nothing in the State” was not taken up by the peasants and artisans. Faced with this, Babeuf and his followers planned an insurrection in which they would seize power, constitute themselves as the ‘Insurrectionary Committee of Public Safety’, crush all opposition and — only then — introduce democracy. It was this method of conspiracy and coup d’etat which became the standard technique for 19th-century insurrectionaries such as Blanqui and which formed the inspiration for their innumerable secret societies and abortive rebellions.
From the start, Marx and Engels were scathing about this concept of revolution. For them it was self-evident that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself” and that, in any case, “revolutions are not made intentionally and arbitrarily” as the plotters imagined.
“It goes without saying that these conspirators by no means confine themselves to organising the revolutionary proletariat. Their business consists in forestalling the process of revolutionary development, spurring it in to artificial crises, making revolutions extempore without the conditions for revolution. For them the only condition required for the revolution is a sufficient organisation of their own conspiracy. They are the alchemists of the revolution.”
Yet, however devastating the attack which Marx might make on the Blanquists and others, in one aspect he and Engels were in a very weak position. If they maintained that it was the entire working class which would be responsible for establishing socialism, how would they square this with the obvious fact that the mass of workers still gave every sign of being as “unenlightened, encrusted, apathetic” as they had been in Babeuf’s time? To counter this, Marx and Engels fell back on the theory that it was the crisis in capitalist production which would galvanise the masses into revolutionary activity.
Even in their earliest writings both Marx and Engels attached great importance to crises: but over the years their observations caused them to modify their ideas, especially in relation to the business cycle. In his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (Deutsche-Franzosische Jahrbucher. 1844) Engels mentioned that slumps occur every five to seven years, “just as regularly as the great plagues did in the past”. He repeated this in Principles of Communism (1847) while, in theCondition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1845), there are references to five-year and five to six-year cycles. Marx held similar views during this period. for in an Address on Free Trade delivered in Brussels in 1848 he drew attention to “the average period of from six to seven years — a period of time during which modern industry passes through the various phases of prosperity, overproduction, stagnation, crisis and completes its inevitable cycle”. At the same time they both expected crises to become “more frequent and more violent” Wage Labour and Capital. Marx. 1847) and “more serious and more universal” (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Engels. 1844).
By the time Marx came to publish Capital (Volume I. 1867) he was writing that “the course characteristic of modern industry” was “a decennial cycle (interrupted by smaller oscillations” — and adding that as accumulation advanced the “irregular oscillations” would follow each other more and more quickly. This perspective was echoed by Engels in most of his writings in the 1870s and early 80s as well. (See Dialectics of Nature. Anti-Dühring (1878), articles in the Labour Standard (1881), for example). Although Engels continued to put this line for some time after Marx’s death – see his letter to Kautsky, November 8 1884 – there was a new development during his last ten years in that more and more he came to maintain that an era of chronic stagnation had overwhelmed capitalism. As early as January 1884 in a letter to Bebel (January 18 1884), he wrote that “the ten-year cycle seems to have broken down” and, that same year, he made a similar point — although more hesitantly — in his Preface to Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy:
“The period of general prosperity preceding the crisis still fails to appear. If it should fail altogether, then chronic stagnation would necessarily become the normal condition of modern industry, with only insignificant fluctuations.”
From then until his death in 1895 his writings were full of references to “permanent and chronic depression” (Preface to the English edition of Capital, Volume I. 1886), to the “chronic state of stagnation in all dominant branches of industry” (Preface to the English edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England. 1892) and to “chronic overproduction, depressed prices, falling or disappearing profits” (Capital, Volume III, 1894).
Parallel to this development of their ideas on the business cycle, Marx’s and Engels’ theories on the relationship between crises and revolution also went through a number of phases. As we have seen, in their early writings both held that the crises in capitalist production would become “more frequent and more violent”. But, if this is seen as an absolute tendency, it must mean that eventually capitalism will be brought to a point where it can no longer recover. At any rate, this was certainly Engels’ interpretation of the trends taking place in the 1840s and he repeatedly implied that crises would produce a revolution independently of the level of socialist consciousness reached by the working class:
“Every new crisis must be more serious and more universal than the last. Every fresh slump must ruin more small capitalists and increase the workers who live only by their labour. This will increase the number of the unemployed and this is the main problem that worries economists. In the end commercial crises will lead to a social revolution far beyond the comprehension of the economists with their scholastic wisdom.” (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, 1844.)
“The revolution must come; it is already too late to bring about a peaceful solution: but it can be made more gentle than that prophesied in the foregoing pages. This depends, however, more upon the development of the proletariat than upon that of the bourgeoisie. In proportion, as the proletariat absorbs socialistic and communistic elements, will the revolution diminish in bloodshed, revenge, and savagery.” (Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845).
Thus, although the extent to which socialist ideas had penetrated the working class might be important in influencing the revolution which Engels thought he saw emerging in England, that was the limit of their role. In both these works, it is the increase in misery of the workers which Engels stresses as the vital factor in the development of their revolutionary activity — rather than their growing understanding of socialism as an alternative method of organising society to capitalism. This contrasts sharply with some of Marx’s writings of the same period, where he puts all his emphasis on the spread of socialist concepts among the working class:
“It is true that, in its economic development, private property advances towards its own dissolution; but it only does this through a development which is independent of itself, unconscious and achieved against its will — solely because it produces the proletariat as proletariat, poverty conscious of its moral and physical poverty, degradation conscious of its degradation, and for this reason trying to abolish itself.” (Holy Family, 1845.)
In fact, socialist consciousness was considered of such vital importance by Marx that he grossly exaggerated its depth and extent
“There is no need to dwell here upon the fact that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historical task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity.” [In 1845!]
The upheavals in France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe in 1848, however, had a profound influence on Marx, and for a time at any rate his enthusiasm got the better of him and he was evidently prepared to suspend his former commitment to socialist consciousness. His writings of this period suggest that it is the commercial crisis and the resulting hardship of the workers which are the critical factors in inducing the working class to turn to revolution. The articles he wrote for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in 1850 all revolve around the axiom that “crises produce revolution”, and since the revolutionary tide had by then ebbed away, that “a new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis”. Naturally, Engels’ earlier ideas readily accommodated themselves to this new development in Marx’s thought and together they wrote:
“With this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society develop as luxuriantly as is at all possible within bourgeois relationships, there can be no talk of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible in periods when both these factors, the modern productive forces and the bourgeois productive forms, come in collision with each other.”
This was the line they were to take throughout the 1850s. Living in exile in London and Manchester, they anxiously searched for any signs of the next crisis — and oscillated between wild optimism and more justified impatience in time with the fluctuations in world trade. In September 1852 Engels is writing to Marx that “with the temporary prosperity … the workers (in France) seem to have become completely bourgeois after all. It will take a severe chastisement by crises if they are to become good for anything again soon.” By April 1853, however: “Europe is admirably prepared; it needs only the spark of a crisis”. (Engels to Weydemeyer). When the required spark didn’t materialise he became more cautious but in 1857, when a crisis really did develop, they were both certain that “now our time is coming”. As early as September 1856, Marx had recognised the symptoms of the approaching disruption in industry and had written to Engels: “This time, moreover, the thing is on a European scale never reached before and I do not think we shall be able to sit here as spectators much longer”. The following year, in the midst of the crisis, he is “working like mad all through the nights at putting my economic studies together so that I may at least have the outlines clear before the deluge comes.” (Letter to Engels, December 8, 1857). Meanwhile Engels was maintaining that a really chronic crisis would be needed to stir the workers into revolution since “the masses must have got damned lethargic after such long prosperity” (Engels to Marx, November 15, 1857). When trade started to pick up again at the end of December 1857 both of them were sadly disappointed and, a year later, we find Engels returning to a familiar theme: “The English proletariat is ‘becoming more and more bourgeois”.
The crisis of 1857 and its failure to evoke a revolutionary response from the working class had a big impact on Marx. So when he came to publish Capital (Volume I, 1867), although he outlined the cycle of modern industry as “a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, overproduction, crisis and stagnation”, there were no references to revolution automatically arising from this sequence. But if Marx seems to have largely shaken himself free of his former romantic notions, they remained well in evidence in Engel’s writings. Anti-Dühring (1878) in particular was as outspoken in its commitment to the idea that capitalism would ‘collapse’ as any of his earlier works had been.
“… this mode of production (capitalism), by virtue of its own development, drives towards the point at which it makes itself impossible.”
Anticipating Rosa Luxemburg, Engels wrote that “if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place” and that the working class would be “forced to accomplish this revolution”, “under penalty of its own destruction”. Crises, then, were still seen as “means of compelling the social revolution”.
Until the early 1880s Engels’s ideas on crises and revolution hardly showed any advance on those he had held 30 years before. This is made clear enough by a letter he wrote to Bernstein in January 1882.
“That crises are one of the most powerful levels of revolutionary upheaval was already stated in The Communist Manifesto and was treated in detail up to 1848 inclusive in the review in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, where, however, it was shown too that returning prosperity also breaks revolutions and lays the basis for the victory of reaction.”
But after Marx’s death in 1883, with Engels deciding that capitalism might well be entering a phase of chronic stagnation with correspondingly less chance of acute crises occurring, his emphasis naturally shifted from the earlier concept of a crisis-provoked revolution to the view that the capitalist system would be driven into an economic impasse. Thus in his preface to the first German edition of Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy (1884) he refers to “the inevitable collapse of the capitalist mode of production which is daily taking place before our eyes to an ever greater degree”. Four years later, in his introduction to Marx’s Address on Free Trade, he writes that society will be “brought to a deadlock, out of which there is no escaping but by a complete remodelling of the economic structure which forms its basis”.
Engels’s correspondence during his last ten years is also an interesting record of his tendency to imagine that capitalism would ‘collapse’. In a letter to J. P. Becker in June 1885 he assessed the political currents at work in England and concluded that “the masses will turn socialist here too. Industrial over-production will do the rest”. As late as 1893, in a letter to Danielson (February 24, 1893), he is still convinced that there are “economic consequences of the capitalist system which must bring it up to the critical point”, that “the crisis must come”.
Yet although at times during this final period of his life, Engels was to foreshadow the determinism of the leaders of the Second International on this question, at others he came near to the position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties. As we have shown, as long as Marx was alive, it was he rather than Engels who emphasised the need for socialist consciousness as a precondition for the overthrowing of capitalism by the working class. But with Marx dead, Engels seems to have become aware of the need to stress this himself. Although he could not free himself entirely from the ideas which had dominated his thinking on revolution for over 40 years, yet he could also write that:
“… the old bourgeois society might still vegetate on for a while, so long as a shove from outside does not bring the whole ramshackle old building crashing down. A rotten old casing like this can survive its inner essential death for a few decades, if the atmosphere is undisturbed. So I should be very cautious about prophesying such a thing” (the collapse of bourgeois society). (Letter to Bebel, October 24, 1891).
When this is coupled with other statements he was to make, to the effect that “where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul” (Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, 1895), one gets an entirely different slant from that conveyed in some of his other writings.
This study of the attitude of Marx and Engels towards crises and the concept of capitalism ‘collapsing’ shows, then, the extent to which they were influenced by the various phases which capitalism passed through in 19th-century Europe. If we have outlined some of the mistaken attitudes they adopted this is not to detract from the immense contributions they made to socialist thought. What it does mean, however, is that it was left to other socialists to produce a more penetrating analysis of the role of crises in capitalist production. What was most useful in their work on this topic was later summed up in the pamphlet Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse which the Socialist Party published in 1932:
“Until a sufficient number of workers are prepared to organise politically for the conscious purpose of ending capitalism, that system will stagger on indefinitely from one crisis to another.”